Virtual Reality Program with Police Officers


The Lab for Applied Social Science Research (LASSR) in collaboration with the University of Maryland Institute for Advanced Computer Studies (UMIACS) and corporate sponsorships has developed a cutting-edge virtual reality program that merges social science with computer science. Housed in the College of Behavioral and Social Sciences (BSOS) and the Department of Sociology, this program provides a platform to evaluate decision-making in an immersive virtual reality environment. We have the ability to create tactical and social simulations that can be used to test decisions. We are willing to fly and/or host small groups of officers to the University of Maryland to test their performance in this simulator pre- and post-training. Because of an existing grant, these costs will be covered by LASSR.

Major objectives include:

  • Gaining a better understanding of how participants respond to different encounters.

  • Evaluating how stress, sleep, and travel affect judgment and behavior.

  • Providing tools and metrics to improve interpersonal dynamics and cross-cultural awareness

  • Offering recommendations for future training to reduce conflict and misunderstanding

Our virtual reality platform can test how the setting, demographics of the virtual reality actors, and demographics of the participants themselves impact decisions. We can manipulate the setting and have the capacity to program the avatars to respond in ways that align with the cultural norms of particular countries or regions. Our program also can assess how participants’ own characteristics play a role in various outcomes. Within the simulator, officers interact with civilians in different policing contexts, from domestic disputes to public disturbances. The state-of-the-art simulator responds to voice commands from officers and uses machine learning to generate verbal responses back from civilians in real time. We use this simulator to measure how officers’ decisions and the content of their speech vary by civilian demographics such as race and gender.

One innovation of our simulations is the ability to measure and evaluate physiological responses. Our program includes five outcomes important to the public safety community: heart rate, stress as indicated in speech, eye tracking, body movement, and weapon tracking. Physiological data are linked to the stimuli so we can determine the exact point in time at which participants experience stress, what information they are attending to, and when they use force in a tactical situation. We can also measure what participants say, the tone and tempo of their speech, deference terms used in speech, and distance from the virtual reality character (a proxy for approach-avoidance tendencies). Participants also complete an attitudinal survey that allows us to examine the impact that attitudes have on decision-making behaviors. Additionally, a post-simulation debriefing asks participants questions about what they did during the interaction. We also audio and video record participants during the simulations. These program components allow for comparisons between actual behaviors (as measured by sensors and speech) to self-reports. In this regard, trained supervisors can review scenarios with participants in order to evaluate performance and to improve decision-making.